Dead horse, the flogging of

A collection of Martin Amis's essays caresses the bottom of the barrel

Tibor Fischer

I have to declare an interest. My arse is mentioned on page 233, where it is deemed “fat”. This is an easy mistake to make for someone as magnitudinally-challenged as Martin Amis. I understand that Martin, staring up at me from such a great distance, might misconstrue sinew for fat. My arse is magnificent and I invite Martin or his appointed agent to come and give it a close-up inspection at any hour of the day.

The Rub of Time is Amis’s latest collection of non-fiction, gathered from several journals. In his acknowledgements Amis himself admits “there are some repetitions and duplications”. He then adds: “Only the reviewer, the proofreader and of course the author will ever be obliged to read the whole thing straight through.”  Guess again, Martin.

President  Trump is flashed up as part of the book’s subtitle, “Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump, Essays and Reportage 1986-2016” to sprinkle some immediacy onto the collection.  Reflecting on Trump’s rise, foreseeably, Amis has a jeer or two as he reviews Trump’s literary output.

If nothing else President Trump can now claim to be the greatest entertainer on the planet (maybe he’ll end up with a residency in Las Vegas after the White House). Amis muses: “The question you want to ask Trump is clearly not ‘If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t rich?’ it is ‘If you’re so rich, how come you aren’t smart?’”

Droll line, but it’s not true. Trump isn’t stupid. He may have many other shortcomings. He may be alarmingly ignorant about many subjects he should know about. He may have the attention-span of a fruit-fly. He may have an inexhaustible supply of  I. But if you haven’t seen the Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump from 2011, where he grins dutifully with artificial sportingness at the most outrageous insults, you won’t understand why he beat the Democrats, the Republicans and the media to get to the Oval Office. He’s a junkyard dog and he ain’t dumb.

Political analysis isn’t Amis’s forte. Profiling Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 he announces: “Labour is out of the game.” Are you sure? Too intelligent to be a prefabricated leftie, nevertheless reporting on the death of Neda Soltan in Iran in 2009  Amis talks of the “first spasm of the death agony of the Islamic  Republic”. Unless he means that any spasm is ultimately a spasm closer to mortality, he’s wrong. Like many liberals he hopes that the Ayatollahs will simply, obligingly, shuffle quietly offstage. The Islamic Republic is disintegrating (make-up, punk bands, bloggers) has been a staple news story for at least 15 years, while oddly Iran’s power has grown.

Amis thrives on what he knows. What does he know? The canon of English Literature, courtesy of Oxford University. Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. Oh, and Philip Larkin, a family friend (furthermore the repetitions and duplications aren’t only in this volume, the piece on Larkin has a salient similarity to the one in The War on Cliché, 2001, but then we’re all encouraged to recycle these days, aren’t we?). Is an intellectual stenosis taking hold?

A highly-skilled book reviewer, Amis is probably number one in the English language. He can penetrate prose with a delicacy and flair that hardly anyone else can achieve. His sensitivity to language and his command of it make him almost unique. What does he choose to do with this weapon of mass enlightenment ?

Perhaps inspired by that standout Rolling Stones song from 1973, “Starfucker”, Amis has waged a 40-year-long campaign to ingratiate himself with the American  behemoths, to hang out in the VIP bar of Yankee power. If you examine The Moronic Inferno, his collection from 1986, you’ll find appreciations of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike. And here in The Rub of Time, behold, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike. It’s true that The Rub of Time lacks Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, but you do get Don Delillo. And Nabokov. And the gang’s all there in The War Against Cliché. Plus Nabokov.

It’s noticeable how in Amis’s output of criticism there is scant celebration of the debut novelist (either British or American). There is no exhumation of some intriguing figure from the 1920s, scandalously forgotten by the public or critics. And when it comes to foreign fiction, whom does Amis invoke? The very usual suspects. Kafka. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. And, bien sûr, Nabokov. What daring, off-piste, Penguin Classics reading. But then since Amis is monolingual his horizons are somewhat limited.

Amis has devoted his energy to stroking the ankles of American giants. He has spent his sentience on slebs. If you can’t do something for Marty, Marty ain’t doing nothing for you. To be fair, The Rub of Time does record the names of Will Self and Lawrence Norfolk, novelists of a younger generation, on whom Amis offers the magnanimous verdict, “They aren’t scum.”

After multiple multi-city tours of the US and serial hailing of its magnates, Amis has failed to conquer the American market, the only one he deeply cares about. Zadie Smith presides there as the British plenipotentiary, while Martin is camped out in Brooklyn in a final, forlorn attempt to get America to notice him.

This volume is for the occasional PhD student, who will flick through, cursing at another slice of Nabokoviana and more Bellowing.

Dead horse, the flogging of. Bottom of the barrel, scraping of. The fooling of some of the people, some of the time. These are the clichés I’m warring against, but I fear I’m losing.

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